The UNC Board of Governors takes action on a leak to the press

In the past few months, under the chairmanship of John Fennebresque, the UNC Board of Governors has been more aggressive than in the past, drilling down into more topics and increasing its discussions in committees and in the full board meetings.

But now the board is being distracted by a spat over confidentiality at Winston-Salem State University, one of the board’s sixteen college campuses.

On November 7, 2014, the Board of Governor’s University Governance Committee recommended that Victor Johnson Jr., vice chairman of the Winston-Salem State University board of trustees, be removed from his post as trustee.

If approved by the full board on Dec. 5, this will be the first time that a trustee has been removed for any reason other than failing to attend meetings.

The reason given by the committee was that Johnson breached a confidentiality agreement in connection with the now-completed search for a new chancellor (replacing Donald Reaves, who retires on Dec. 31). Johnson was a member of the search committee.

Johnson is a 1961 alumnus of Winston-Salem State, were he was a co-captain and four-year letterman in football. Johnson served as an assistant principal for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools, among other positions, and is a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth Board of Education. He founded the Vic Johnson Junior Golf Clinic in 1997.

The issue would not have arisen if it weren’t for an article that appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal on August 28, 2014, which revealed the names of the three finalists for the position. The reporter, John Hinton, wrote that the person who provided the information “isn’t authorized to discuss the candidates.” (Hinton did not return phone calls from the Pope Center seeking to find out more about the leak.)

Like all UNC chancellor searches, this search was supposed to be confidential, and publication of the names of the three finalists violated the practices of the committee and the expectations of the candidates.

Soon after the article appeared, one candidate, Harry Williams, president of Delaware State University, dropped out of the running, leaving two remaining candidates. Elwood Robinson, provost of the Cambridge School in Massachusetts, was chosen as the chancellor and will take office January 1.

The clear implication of the committee’s decision is that Johnson provided the newspaper with the names. However, so far, there is no “smoking gun” to prove that he leaked the information.

The main public information suggesting a leak comes in a letter to Johnson on October 8, 2014, from Joan G. MacNeill, chairman of the governance committee. MacNeill wrote that on August 22, 2014, Johnson told the search committee he had shared confidential information with a “superintendent” and “proceeded to share the superintendent’s comments and feedback about a specific candidate with the WSSU Search Committee.”

In his response to MacNeill, Johnson said that he did not share any confidential information with outsiders and explained the reference to the superintendent:

I did share in one session with the search committee that my superintendent [a reference to Beverly Emory, superintendent of the school board] told me that she and Dr. Hardy [Virginia Hardy, the third candidate] had worked together in Pitt County and that Dr. Hardy was a smart person. I am a member of the WS/FC Board of Education and the superintendent was aware that Dr. Hardy was a candidate.

In other words, he claimed that he was not the one who informed the superintendent.

Johnson also said that there were meetings of the finalists with faculty and with Greensboro families, indicating that others outside the search committee and board of trustees knew the identity of the finalists, too. The secretary of the university, Ann W. Lemmon, who represented the university’s general administration at the search committee meetings, says, however, that everyone who met with the candidates was required to promise confidentiality.

Fueling this contretemps appear to be some emotional issues stemming from disagreement between Johnson and others over how the search committee was formed and possible disagreement over the candidates (nine candidates were interviewed by the committee). According to the chair of the board of trustees, Debra Miller, Johnson “demanded a meeting of the Board of Trustees before conducting further interviews with candidates” and threatened to ‘go to the press’ if I did not return his message.” (She wrote this in a letter to the chair of the governance committee.)

Johnson contends that the search committee should have been selected with the approval of the full board, not just by the chair. In a conversation with the Pope Center, he cited the by-laws of the university, which state that “the board of trustees shall establish a search committee….”  That didn’t happen, says Johnson. “In the search process, the chair made all of the decisions,” he wrote in his letter to MacNeill; he had no role in developing the questions presented to the candidates.

In response to his claim, Debra Miller told the Pope Center that “Mr. Johnson is mistaken in his reading of the by-laws.” She points out that the by-laws also state that “the Chair of the Board of Trustees has the authority to establish committees, which would include the search committee.”

MacNeill asked Johnson to resign, but he refused. Johnson also said that John Fennebresque, chairman of the Board of Governors, spoke to Johnson’s attorney, asking Johnson to resign.

“We cannot have trustees violate the terms of a confidentiality agreement,” Fennebresque explained to the Pope Center.

It appears that if the full board goes ahead and removes Johnson he has no procedural recourse. State law gives the Board of Governors authority to delegate powers to campus trustees and includes a “catch-all” phrase that the board “shall possess all powers not specifically given to institutional boards of trustees.”

Whether Johnson actually went to the newspaper remains unknown. He maintains that he didn’t, and the other person who knows, the Winston-Salem Journal reporter who wrote the story, isn’t talking. Meanwhile, this dispute can only sidetrack the board from its very full agenda.